It took some mental flexibility to get my brain back from postmodern philosophy to the Ancient Near East. But that is where Kenton Sparks goes next in God’s Word in Human Words.
He has a chapter called “Historical Criticism and Assyriology”. (My idiot spellchecker wants to keep changing Assyriology to Astrology.) He gets a little distance from the Bible and talks about how we now know a lot of things that we did not used to know because of the methods of historical critics.
He tells the very interesting story of how the Akkadian cuneiform writings were deciphered and how historical critical methods opened a door to a better grasp of ancient history. Once they translated the Gilgamesh Saga scholars went to work trying to figure out how it cameabout. They discovered a complex history of composition and transmission.
Scholars also used the old Assyrian Annals and Babylonian Chronicles to reconstruct the history of kings and wars. They noticed that the annals were royal propaganda. They, therefore, became cautious about taking the history in them at face value. But the chronicles came from more independent sources so they gave them more historical value.
Sparks talks about the Uruk prophecies, which contain ex eventu prophecies, that is, prophecies of events that have already happened written back into an earlier time.
He talks about The Sins of Sargon, a tale with a theological purpose of promoting the worship of the deity, Marduk. He shows how scholars at first thought the tale was historical, but found that it is not.
He talks about the Sumerian Kings List, which turns out to be a parody of kings lists. It lists some real kings but many fabricated ones.
See what he has done? By talking about a related, but non-biblical discipline, he has shown how knowledge of the past depends on historical critical methods.
I paraphrase some results he sees for historical criticism: First, you cannot assume that ancient texts that look like history actually are.
Second, such texts sometimes reflect a long and complicated literary history.
Third, authors may have ideological purposes that trump any concern about precise history, so they easily fill in gaps in their knowledge with what should have happened from their perspective.
Fourth, some ancient historical documents are relatively accurate.
Fifth, it was a standard practice to write prophecies back into history, which was a fraud from one perspective or poetic license from another.
Sixth, texts often had political sponsors in the palace or the temple and promote the sponsor’s agendas at the expense of objective history.
Seventh, sometimes a standard form, like a kings list, could exist for purposes of recording events, but sometimes the form got used for a different purpose, such as parody.
Eighth, and finally, Near Eastern compositions sometimes imply that they came to exist in one period, when they really are from another.
These kinds of results may occasion disagreements among Assyriologists, but the historical critical method itself is not questioned. Even conservative, evangelical scholars tend to rely on knowledge that comes from historical critical methods applied to ancient Mesopotamian literature.
Sparks says that the problem evangelical scholars have with historical criticism is not a problem with historical criticism as such, but with historical criticism as applied to the Bible. So his next chapter will be about that.